The Rosenberg Library was founded through the generosity of a Swiss immigrant named Henry Rosenberg, a man who rose from a most humble beginning to become a successful businessman and beloved civic leader. His vision for a library that would aid Galveston’s intellectual development and be a source of pleasure has inspired generations of islanders to give back to their community.
Born in 1824 in Bilten, Switzerland, Henry Rosenberg moved to Galveston at age nineteen and began work as a dry goods clerk. Though he had little money, his skill and determination enabled him to become one of the wealthiest men in Texas. He operated one of the largest dry good companies in the state and held various leadership positions in the community. Mr. Rosenberg was married to Letitia Cooper in 1851; after her death in 1888, he married Mollie Ragan Macgill.
Henry Rosenberg eventually became president of the Gulf, Colorado and Santa Fe Railroad and owner of a bank on the island. Over the course of five decades in Galveston, Henry Rosenberg became one of the most prominent — and most generous — citizens in the city. He provided funds to build the Rosenberg Free School and to assist with the cost of constructing Eaton Chapel.
The people of Galveston were grief stricken by the news of Mr. Rosenberg’s death on May 12, 1893. Public schools let out for the day, the Swiss consulate lowered its flags to half-staff and many local businesses closed. To the great surprise of the community, Mr. Rosenberg had bequeathed the bulk of his sizable estate to numerous charitable causes.
In his will, Mr. Rosenberg left bequests for a variety of civic improvements including an Orphans Home, a Texas Heroes Monument, and public drinking fountains “for men and beasts.” The largest bequest went to create the Rosenberg Library as a successor to the Galveston Mercantile Library which dated to 1871. An explanation of his wish to establish a public library in the city was given in his last will and testament.
ACTOR VOICEOVER: “… I desire to express in a practical form my affection for the city of my adoption and for the people among whom I have lived for so many years, trusting that it will aid their intellectual and moral development, and be a source of pleasure and profit to them and their children, and their children’s children, through many generations.”
The St. Louis firm of Eames and Young designed the building, with the cornerstone laid in 1902, and the sparkling new library opened on June 22, 1904. As one of the first public libraries in Texas, the Rosenberg Library was top notch with a circulating collection, a reference area and periodicals. From the beginning, the library was more than a repository for books. The top floor originally held an auditorium designed to welcome 700 people for lectures and performances. Although Henry Rosenberg never had children of his own, the library he created offered excellent reading facilities for the island’s youth. The children’s department was located in what is now the Fox Room.
A unique aspect of the Rosenberg Library was the early development of a museum and archival collection related to the history of Galveston and Texas. Today, the library preserves a vast collection of art, artifacts, and historical documents. Among these are relics of the Texas Revolution, a pair of dueling pistols which belonged to Sam Houston, historical maps and photographs, and much more.
Since 1941, Rosenberg Library has served as the headquarters for the Galveston County Library System, providing outreach services to seniors, nursing homes, schools, day cares, home-bound individuals and hospitals throughout the county. The library has continued to expand its services to the community and has received generous support from The Friends of Rosenberg Library, a dedicated body of community volunteers, as well as from other donors and supporters.
Six decades after its opening, the library’s Board of Directors saw the need for more library space not only to store its growing collection of books, but to house meeting rooms, museum galleries, special collections, and an historical research center. In 1967, a campaign was launched and the new Moody Memorial Wing opened in 1971.
As the library prepared for its centennial celebration in 2004, the Board of Directors embarked on a phased renovation of the library which included a new roof purchased from the same company that provided the roof tiles for the original building, a new skylight, and extensive repairs to the façade of the Rosenberg Wing of the building.
The next big changes to the Rosenberg Library came not as a planned expansion, but courtesy of Hurricane Ike that inundated the island on September 13, 2008. It was the most destructive storm to hit the area since 1900, and its flood waters completely destroyed the first floor and many of the library’s operational systems. As catastrophic as Ike was, the rebuilding effort resulted in a facility that was more energy efficient, had better interior lighting and had better protected electrical and climate control systems. In the years following the storm, the new children’s area opened with upgraded technology to help children learn; the second floor of the Rosenberg Wing received a loving restoration; and the computer lab was expanded to include a new media center.
Since 1904, the Rosenberg Library has truly become not only one of the most cherished treasures on the island, but also one of the most utilized. Perhaps just as Henry Rosenberg desired, no other structure has contributed more to Galveston’s intellectual and educational progress than this library.
One step remains in the process of rebuilding and renovation, however. Phase 7 of the library’s plan will restore the 1904 Rosenberg Wing’s top floor to its original glory. It will uncover architectural details not seen for decades including the restoration of one of the signature leaded glass ceiling panels. The renovations will create more exhibit space, allowing the library to showcase a greater number of pieces from its collections of art and rare historical artifacts. Phase 7 will also allow for improved accessibility by bringing the entire facility into ADA compliance.
The wonderful strides to be found in Phase 7 will not happen on their own, however. As a 501(C)3 non-profit, the Rosenberg Library relies upon private contributions for major capital improvement. You can help. To support Phase 7 and help cement the Rosenberg Library’s place as one of Galveston’s most important and valued institutions, please visit the library website or call the library’s administrative offices.